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Profiting From Disaster VS Doing Well by Doing Good

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Having spent much of my hard earned money on philanthropy and being an entrepreneur I have always wanted to make sure that if I make a contribution to a cause that the contribution I make has a sustainable benefit. So I always take the time to check into the results being produced by the recipients of any money or time that I might be contributing.

For instance with The Hunger Project I contribute freely as I have found that their programs that center around empowerment of women in developing nations produce long term lasting benefits without disruption to local infrastructure or the economy.

I am also very pleased with funding pure research that yields exciting new discoveries such as those being created by The SENS foundation. The work being done by TED's Willow Tree foundation is also well thought through.

I have seen many charities where I am disappointed though and while I will not name their names I will say that charities that use an old model of either providing direct aid or service delivery often cause far more harm than good. They disrupt economies and put people out of business by effectively competing with local operations (both commercial and government) at zero cost.

Also there are many ad hoc efforts that do not do any good because they are simply not thought through. Witness the clothing garbage tsunami that is stagnating in the aftermath of the real tsunami where so much second hand clothing was donated and shipped that no one can deal with the resulting mountain of rotting socks and pullovers.

I have also founded two carefully thought through non-profit organizations. One is www.neo.org which allows people to empower themselves by sharing publicly who they are being to make the world a better place rather than sharing more banal facts about what they are doing. You see if you start taking actions that assist others its actually a pretty good way of empowering yourself hence you can do well by doing good.

The second organization is WeForest.com which seeks to end climate chaos before it starts by reforesting 20 million square kilometers of the Earth in a sustainable way by 2020.

Here I can finally get to the meat of my story. You see I was reading about how online game company Zynga (the makers of Farmville) have been supporting charities by selling virtual items in game.

Now I know from Weforest's own social efforts that it is relatively hard to turn slacktivists into activists and Zynga has apparently been able to mobilize money from people very quickly.

So I used my network and sent emails to some of the Zynga founders as there is no better fit in my mind for a farming game than a reforestation effort that assist people to grow food.

After zero response I wondered if there was another way to use Farmville to help out WeForest and it struck me that growing a WeForest logo in Farmville made out of virtual food trees so that we could get some free pr.

So a week later I had a cute little Farmville farm all made out of food trees and a tasteful weforest logo in the middle.

What was Zynga's response to this little pr effort? Without a word they closed my account and locked me out of the game.

So this made me think a bit more deeply about Zynga's good works. You see they have been transparent about their economics when they do a fund raising effort and frankly the numbers are interesting.

Haiti has an earthquake and Zynga starts selling virtual goods to raise money for the cause. Now they say half the cash from the sales goes to Haiti charities. Zynga have mobilized a lot of people very quickly to contribute to a cause. This is a good thing right?

Somehow this does not sit well with me though. You see Zynga gets a lot of free pr and half the cash which is very profitable because they would not have made so many sales anyway and they are selling virtual stuff with very minimal costs.

The standard we are held to at WeForest as a not for profit would appear to be much harsher. We are expected to deliver the majority of any cash we raise to programs and we do this. We also do not link our PR strategy to world events.

Now many charities and many for profit companies deliver only a tiny fraction of what they raise to useful programs and I cannot hold Zynga to the same high standard that I would hold WeForest to yet it irks me that Zynga through the uniqueness of its speed of response and its delivery mechanism is actually profiting from disasters like Haiti.

Perhaps it's just sour grapes that they locked me out of Farmville for our little logo or perhaps it's just not right to profit from others misfortune no matter how good your intentions. I can say though that their reinstating my access to Farmville is less important to me than would be Zynga delivering say 95 percent of all proceeds raised from their special sales to those causes they support.

What do you think?

Bill Liao - author of Stone soup how to build something from nothing www.stonesoupway.com

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